How Technology Has Both Fueled and Hindered the 2019 Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Protests

As the city moves into its sixth month of civil unrest, Hong Kong remains consumed by widespread pandemonium and ruin, forcing the once flourishing city into a recession for the first time in a decade. No sign of abatement is in sight as protestors prepare for death in light of escalating violence. The impetus, an extradition bill which has since been withdrawn, quickly made way for full democracy and police brutality concerns to surface. Recent elections also show widespread support for the pro-democracy movement. This is not the first time Hong Kongers have risen up in protest since the ’97 handover. The 2014 “Umbrella Movement” ended in failure, but this time around, Hong Kong’s leaderless protest movement has adopted an open source organizational model, in which online communication platforms like LIHKG and Telegram have been central. LIHKG is a multi-category forum website that is oft likened to Reddit with posts that may be up or down-voted by users. The forum has been used for crowdfunding to bring attention to the protests and has served as a real-time poll for action. Similarly, instant-messaging app Telegram has allowed protestors to swiftly mobilize. Its popularity comes from its ‘secret chat’ function which allows for ‘end-to-end’ encryption, an implementation of asymmetric encryption where third-party users are blocked from accessing transferred data between a true sender and recipient.

In spite of their success, LIHKG and Telegram have not been immune to attack. China has been linked to distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on both platforms where servers were overwhelmed with garbage requests to create connectivity issues for users, presumably an attempt to disrupt protest mobilization. Further, other online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even Pornhub, have identified Chinese information warfare and removed accounts linked to state-backed disinformation campaigns. Since these campaigns were inadequate, the Hong Kong Police Force enlisted the help of foreign cybersecurity specialists and has become ever more zealous in tracking and identifying activists for arrest. In response, private companies like Yubico have stepped up to the plate in the name of social responsibility to protect activists by donating hundreds of hardware security keys, long known as a more secure method of protection, though they are unhelpful in cases where police request protestors to unlock phones protected by biometrics. This too remains an issue. In Colin Cheung’s case, a protestor who created a facial recognition tool to identify police and who was subsequently targeted by law enforcement because of it, police forcibly pried his eyes open and shoved his face into his phone to attempt entry by way of the phone’s facial recognition unlocking function.

As social unrest endures in Hong Kong, so has weaponization of biometric data and identity generally. It has been a race between demonstrators and patriots to outdox, the leaking of one’s personal information online for malicious intent, one another. Hong Kong police were hit particularly hard on the ‘Dadfindboy’ Telegram doxxing channel after they stopped wearing identification badges as violence escalated. On November 8th, the High Court of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region extended an injunction to stop doxxing of police officers and their family members with a journalism exemption to balance government accountability and personal security. But this ban does not address the doxxing of pro-democracy figures who have had sensitive personal data such as home addresses and phone numbers categorically exposed on both the China-backed website HK Leaks and to a lesser extent Telegram. Such targeted leaks have led to death threats meant to unnerve protestors into submission.

It remains to be seen how pro-establishment figures and state-backed initiatives will continue to use technology against these young, tech-savvy activists who are afraid of nothing but a future without hope of universal suffrage and government accountability. China is quickly losing patience with its problem child, and the world watches with bated breath for the conflict to come to a head. One thing is certain; this time, pro-democracy protestors aren’t giving up so easily. As one protestor posted on LIHKG: “If not now, when?”

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